31 May 2013

Escape from Harem by Tanushree Podder

Khurram, Arjumand, and others

Zeenat, a young girl whose mother happens to work in the harem of Jahangir, catches the fancy of the Mughal emperor. This story is about what happens to her and how she copes with the way her life turns out. Through Zeenat we get a glimpse into a Mughal harem – the luxury, the pain of captivity, the intrigue, the ruthlessness. Tanushree Podder also takes us out into the countryside and gives us a strong sense of this period of history and its geography, and the lives and struggles of the ordinary people. I asked about her sources for the book and how much was imaginary and how much pure fact. She replied:
I pored through dozens of historical tomes: the accounts written by European travellers like Francois Bernier and historians like Sir Jadunath Sarkar and R. Nath; the Jahangir Nama; books like The Mughal Empire from Babar to Aurangzeb by S. M. Jaffar; The Empire of the Great Mughals, History, Art and Culture by Annemarie Schimmel. The history and events are absolutely factual, only the protagonist is imaginary. I wanted to portray the entire story through the eyes of a harem inmate so I invented Zeenat.
Some years ago, I read this sentence in a school textbook: “Unfortunately, most of the masterpieces in art in India have been destroyed by the idol-smashing Muslim rulers.”
This books makes an interesting read. But to me it has the infinitely greater value of giving its readers a better sense of perspective of what the people of India inherited from their ‘Muslim rulers’.

29 May 2013

The Indus Intercept by Aruna Gill

Fact and fiction overlap 

This book left me with two very strong feelings. One was sadness, tinged with despair, for the people of Balochistan. The second was awe at the amount of information the author had managed to pack into this thriller without weighing it down or reducing its pace. This part of the world has much that is unique and fascinating. It was host to one of the world’s earliest civilizations, which produced a script that has never been deciphered. It has harsh terrain and a location that has made it one of the most politically vulnerable for centuries. The people are highly emotional and the culture produced a precious store of poetry, folktales and music, but today the literacy rate is abysmally low.  In the current context, an area of vast natural resources, it is a region whose people feel betrayed by their government. The author has explored these various aspects minutely. Couched as they are in adventure and drama, the quality of detail and narrative skill serves to make the place vividly authentic in the reader’s eye. The characterization is also strong; the people in this book are still with me.
As a work of spy fiction written by an Indian and based in Pakistan, I was impressed by the neutral tone which allows a balanced portrayal of a number of negative characters. The arch villain, however – a real and rather controversial person (for details, go read the book!) – appears only in silhouette. Other shadowy characters display amusing but lifelike traits, as in this conversation between a CIA agent and his boss:
“Good. Good. Any ideas?”
“It appears to be in the Indus Valley script.”
“The Indus Valley script, huh. So, when can you get me a translation?”
“The Indus Valley script has never been deciphered.” Fred rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“Never been deciphered? You telling me there’s some shithead with a towel wrapped around his head sitting in a cave writing instructions in a language no one else can read? Red Rock’s voice rose till it cracked, an octave above his normal tone. 
I met Aruna Gill earlier this month. It was at the Lawrence School, Lovedale, where we both studied, a few years apart – a school which has produced many well-known writers, including Arundhati Roy. 
Of the four writers displaying their books in this photograph, it’s an odd coincidence that two of us had based our most recent work in neighbouring provinces of Pakistan. Aruna told me that she had never been to Balochistan. It was her fascination for the Indus Valley civilization that led her to read about precursor sites around Mehrgarh. And learning about the troubles in that area prompted her to keep reading and asking, and eventually base her book there instead of writing the story set in an ancient civilization she had originally planned. It also led her to the understanding that insurgencies arising from the grievances of peoples neglected by their governments have similarities across culture and continent. She intends to base her next book in such an area in India.

24 May 2013

INFERNAL PART II (by the same career ghost writer)

The Code returns

Sophie-Kutty and Robo Langdon have arrived in Pune, following Sophie-Kutty’s recently dead grandfather’s cryptic directions. Sila the hijra is in hot pursuit. They join the huge annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur known as Palki, looking for more clues. Inspector Jadhav too has sworn publicly to solve the mystery.

The Palki comprised long lines of simple rural folk walking along in bands.
Some carried banners. Many were singing, playing the cymbals, or chanting. The women wore flowers. The men were dressed in dhoti-topi. Elders were carried in palanquins. They had walked for days; covered hundreds of miles. Pune traffic was diverted to non-Palki routes. In their fervour for Dnyaneshwar, school kids and office goers too had decided to stay home.
Sophie-Kutty was filled with pangs of grief for the loss of her grandfather. She looked at Robo. They had grown fond of each other. “I think we should mix in the crowd separately,” she told him. “Let’s meet at the German Bakery tomorrow lunchtime.” Langda nodded. He knew she was right.
Next day, Sophie-Kutty was surprised to see Langda already at the German Bakery, hanging out with a familiar-looking face. “Meet Shantaram,” he introduced her. The famous Australian convict had lived in Mumbai slums, saving lives with his first-aid skills and equipment. Sophie-Kutty had loved the book but found the Marathi renderings pretentious.
“Hmm, not bad,” Sophie-Kutty acknowledged, impressed, “but see what I got!” and she brought forward a handsome but rather dirty-looking young man whose upper-class British antecedents became evident the minute he cleared his throat.
“Antimony Hopscotch,” Sophie-Kutty offered him proudly to the others.
“Fascinating, this Pulkey,” Antimony beamed with native wit. He put down his backpack and he and Shantaram compared notes on their separate groups, routes, rituals, evening entertainment, and where to get good dope.
“Son of a duke,” Sophie-Kutty briefed Langda. “Mother studied metallurgy at Edinburgh. Badly oppressed by life of royalty and disappeared in the middle of his gap year. Surfaces occasionally to e-mail addresses where his folks can wire him money.”
“Gap year?” asked an unfamiliar voice, “Do you mean he spent one year buying t-shirts? Sounds like my son.”
Sophie-Kutty and Robo looked up. Inspector Jadhav stood at the entrance stroking his moustache. A shrill scream from Sophie-Kutty cut short Langda’s socio-economic analysis of the phrase Gap Year. He looked hurt, but she pointed behind the inspector where Sila was shackled. The inspector looked modestly victorious. “We caught him trying to make away with Sant Dnyaneshwar’s sandals,” he explained.
Sila leaned forward and thrust a piece of paper into Langda’s hand.
“Gup re,” shouted Inspector Jadhav threateningly, “Ek kan patti lavtho”.
“Well done sir,” said Robo, “Sophie, we can go home now.”
“What does Sila’s note say?” Sophie-Kutty asked later as they tucked into greasy cheese toasts on the Indrayani.
“I’d forgotten about that!” Robo exclaimed and unfolded the slip, but recoiled when he read FART IN A SHED.
Sophie-Kutty studied the message, squinting worriedly into the railway sheds they passed. As they walked out of CST, Sophie-Kutty jumped up, slapping her forehead. “My grandfather would have been ashamed of me!” she exclaimed. Can’t you see Robo darling, FART IN A SHED is nothing but ANDHERI FAST! Let’s hurry!”
They raced across the streets, propelled by the sea of evening commuters, and fell breathless into an Andheri Fast, pouncing into window seats before others got them.
“Sila!” Sophie-Kutty screeched, leaning and stretching her hands out through the window bars towards the hijra who had found them again.
“I am innocent! Those were MY grandfather’s sandals, he was a famous hijra!” Sila shouted.  “DNA test was done and sandal found to belong in my family. Please Sophie-Kutty, remember one thing, EVIDENCE IN A CORRUPTION!”
“What?!” Sophie-Kutty asked, startled.
The train began to move. Sila ran alongside.
“CONTINUE PRIOR DEVIANCE” he yelled desperately.
“Her grandfather was a HIJRA?” Langda asked incredulously. “I’ve always wondered how these things work.”
“Robo, listen,” said Sophie sternly. “These are Jacob Sussanna’s last two messages. Both indicate very clearly that the convict Shantaram stole Sant Dnyaneshwar’s sandals.”
Arriving at Shantaram’s posh new apartment at Lokhandwala, they found the front door key under the door mat, but no sandals inside.
Later, Sophie-Kutty sipped her chai and mused despondently, “I should have realised my grandfather would never leave me so obvious a clue.”
“Look at this,” responded Langda excitedly, “FART IN A SHED also reads FANS HIDE RAT. Did you know that one year the British banned the Palki saying that the plague was going wherever the Palki went? But the order met with outrage and rebellion of such magnitude that they had no choice but to revoke it.”
“My god!” Sophie-Kutty hurriedly interrupted his lecture. “My grandfather was one smart old geezer! That fits in with HA HA! VAST ARMPIT INJURIES ITCH!”
It was Robo Langda’s turn to slap his forehead. “I’ve got it!” he shouted, leaping up.
Later that day, a beaming Inspector Jadhav faced a battery of mikes and press cameras. “I owe thanks to my dear friends Sophie-Kutty and Robo Langda with whose help the Mumbai Police have apprehended the notorious criminal Mr. Antimony Hopscotch.”
Jadhav and Langda had led Antimony into a temple, while Sophie-Kutty quickly picked up the sandals he left outside and returned them soundlessly to the relieved Palki. When Antimony’s own sandals had torn, he had been too broke to buy a new pair, so just helped himself to the Palki’s sandals without anticipating the resulting furore.
“It’s quite simple, really,” Langda said. “EVIDENCE IN A CORRUPTION and CONTINUE PRIOR DEVIANCE are both anagrams of RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION.”
“Besides,” added Sophie-Kutty, you must have noticed that most evil villains speak in that posh Brit accent. Remember Sher Khan in Jungle Book? Sean Ambrose in MI2? Lagaan, Mangal Pandey, Rang de Basanti? Cruella de Ville? Lord Farquhart? Hannibal Lecter? Even that horrid Simon Cowell in American Idol speaks like that.”
Concluded Inspector Jadhav, “From my side I am relieved that culprit has turned out to be foreign national. The minority groups would have been giving lot of trouble. These days even our Hindus have become very sensitive and are closing down Hussain exhibitions and the like. The messages of our native Saints like Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram have become increasingly important and I request you all to follow. Jai Maharashtra.”

The Code returns, first published by Sunday Mid-day on 9 July 2006, parodies Dan Brown's style of writing and traces the history of a lesser (Indian) Robert Langdon.It is the second part of a column that appeared in this blog yesterday.

23 May 2013

INFERNAL (by a career ghost writer)

The Dnyaneshwar Code

Robo Langda awoke slowly.
The doorbell had been ringing insistently for several minutes. He cursed silently and groped his way to the entrance of his apartment, forcing his eyelids painfully apart. That pesky sadistic newspaper boy did it every Sunday morning.
Robo opened the door with the chain on, and felt the large wad of newspapers thrust right into his gut. Coffee, he needed coffee. He tipped a generous shower of Brazilian instant into a mug of water and shoved it into the microwave. Then he saw the headline, and he reeled.
CASTRATING THE OUCH! it read. Langda’s breath came in slow, painful gasps. The famous communist poet Jacob Sussanna was no more. Langda, professor in History at the Bombay University, had read Sussanna in Femina and other esteemed magazines ever since he was a student. Sussanna had a brilliant mind, and was well known to be a storehouse of cultural knowledge. Vastly respected for his wit and wisdom, Susanna was a darling of the TV news channels and regularly held forth on various debate shows.
Fully awake now, Langda peered at the extraordinary headline and the photograph of one well-built Inspector Jadhav, arms akimbo. According to the article, Sussanna had phoned Jadhav bare seconds before he died of a massive heart attack. He had been sounding rather strange – Jadhav confirmed that Sussanna often sounded rather strange – and had requested the Inspector to come and see him immediately though it was the middle of the night. Indulgent of the eccentric behaviour of brilliant poets, Jadhav had rushed to his side, but too late. Sussanna lay on the floor, tightly clutching a note in his hand on which was hand-written, in bold capital letters, “Castrating the ouch”. What could it possibly mean?
“Inspector Jadhav is certain that Sophie-Kutty, famous Sudoku champion and granddaughter of Susanna, will have a solution to this mystery,” the article concluded.
Langda, who had an earnest face and kind heart, was romantically unattached. He thought for a moment, then pulled on his trousers, splashed some water on his face, and walked down to the Bandra station.
Soon enough, Sophie-Kutty appeared, and Langda, cunningly looking the other way, stuck his leg out so that she tripped over it. As he helped her up, they held each other’s hands for a brief, warm moment.
Sophie herself was not that bad looking and had small, well-formed (but extremely strong) bones.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your grandfather,” Langda said gently.
“He was trying to warn me,” Sophie-Kutty sobbed. “I’m so scared – see, I’ve been followed!” and she nudged Langda, indicating subtly with her eyebrow. Langda looked where she had pointed and said soothingly, “Don’t worry Sophie-Kutty, that’s only Sila the hijda. She lives behind Elco and I’ve known her for years. She’s quite nice, really.”
“But she’s chasing me,” Sophie-Kutty whispered. “My grandfather knew this was going to happen!”
“Sussanna was a genius,” said Langda. “You know his penchant for double meanings. Take a closer look,” and he pointed at the headline.
Sophie-Kutty gave a little start. “Of course!” she said. “I should have seen it myself. It’s a simple anagram. Re-arranged, CASTRATING THE OUCH reads CHURCHGATE STATION. She tugged at his sleeve. “Let’s hurry!” and they raced across the overbridge.
The train pulled into Churchgate and the two stumbled out but Sophie-Kutty’s blood ran cold. Sila was lurching along behind them, pushing the other well-dressed Sunday commuters out of the way. They hid for a moment behind a milk booth and when Sila paused, Sophie-Kutty grabbed Langda’s sleeve. “He’ll never look here,” she said, and pulled him into the Gents. It was deserted but the stink made them retch. Then, a large graffiti on the side wall made them reel. Retching and reeling, they clutched onto each other for support.  “HA HA! VAST ARMPIT INJURIES ITCH,” Sophie-Kutty read aloud. “What can it possibly mean?”
“I know!” Langda shouted suddenly. “Quick! Can’t you see, it’s another anagram! My god, Sussanna was a genius! CHHATRAPATI SHIVAJI TERMINUS!”
The two ran out and piled hurriedly into a taxi. After the toilet, that whiff of Sophie-Kutty’s perfume was very pleasant to Robo.
“Jaldi, jaldi!” Sophie-Kutty begged the taxi driver when Sila began tapping on the window with threatening looks.
They shot off but Sila ran alongside. “Just ignore her,” the driver advised. Sila was keeping abreast, tapping on the window, sari flapping in the wind, muttering dire threats. “These hijras are something else,” said the driver, “they could make our country proud by joining the Olympics or the marathon. But no, all they want to do is chase my taxi.”
Langda was immersed in thought. Peering at the headline again, he gasped. “Sophie-Kutty, look at this! CASTRATING THE OUCH can be rearranged to read CATCH TOUGHER SAINT. My god the extent of Sussanna’s cryptic skill is simply amazing. Finally I know what he was trying to tell us.”
Langda rushed to the window and bought 2 tickets to Pune.
“It’s the Palki,” he explained to Sophie-Kutty. “It’s one of our oldest religious traditions! The greatest ever expression of spontaneous faith! A movement never sullied by politics or powerbroking! Every year, untold thousands of pilgrims walk from all over the countryside, through the birthplaces of the great saints of Maharashtra. Huge processions swell as they move from one village to the next, until they reach Pandharpur on Ashadi Ekadashi.
“Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath – these names you have surely heard? The Bhakti movement influenced the course of our country’s religious history from the 13th to the 16th centuries. They preached the equality of all humans, the all-pervasiveness of the almighty, and that spirituality had no favoured language. Of course the Brahmins didn’t agree.”
Sophie-Kutty yawned, Langda was a History Prof, remember.
The train pulled in at Pune Station. Among the crowd of faces that milled on the platform, Sophie-Kutty spotted Sila, and shivered.
  • Will Sophie-Kutty and Robert Langda solve the mystery of Sussanna’s messages?
  • Will her grandfather send any more irritating anagrams?
  • Will Sila finally attack them?
  • Will Sant Dnyaneshwar’s sandals be returned to the Palki?
Read about it next week in the concluding part of The Dnyaneshwar Code.
The Dnyaneshwar Code, first published by Sunday Mid-day on 2 July 2006, parodies Dan Brown's style of writing and traces the history of a lesser (Indian) Robert Langdon. Part II tomorrow, same time, same place ... 

22 May 2013

80 Questions to Understand India by Murad Ali Baig

Black or white?

Much of what we understand to be history is often just propaganda. In this book, Murad Ali Baig answers basic questions that make us confront our assumptions and see things with more clarity and less bias than before. These questions build up from the earliest history: “Was India one of the oldest civilisations?” and take us through various stages our textbooks define and some the author introduces. There is a lot of solid information here, and presented very simply and without fuss.
Murad Ali Baig draws his information from various sources, at times questioning the bias or standpoint of the source, and offering a more plausible interpretation instead. And some of his questions address widely-accepted theories and may appear provocative:
  • Were the early Indian temples really Hindu?
  • Did Muslim invaders actually desecrate Hindu temples and slaughter Hindus by the thousand?
  • Did the British exploit India’s wealth?
In the course of an answer to a question about whether religion was created by priests and rulers or sages and prophets, he writes:
The message of all the prophets and sages were imbued with joy. But the priests shrewdly understood that hatred was a more powerful uniting factor than love. When people loved together there was always rivalry but that there was always unity when people hated together. Hatred was the core of religious fervour uniting believers against the perceived enemies of every faith. Throughout the world, it was the greed for power and wealth of the rulers instigated by their priests that caused more people to die for religion than from almost any other cause.
Sometimes, and increasingly so in the Indian subcontinent, history is written and taught with a view to controlling people and creating a certain mindset or feelings. This book, on the other hand, presents Indian history in a way that encourages the reader to develop a mature attitude towards both past as well as future.

17 May 2013

Lost in Transmission by Jonathan Harley

A book that came out of a dream job

Jonathan Harley worked as Australian Broadcasting Corporation's New Delhi-based South Asia Correspondent from 1998 to 2002. This is his account of his time here. 
Why did I just read a book that’s more than ten years old? Because it arrived in the post for me one fine day, a present from Sri Aiyar who lives in Adelaide, and who (I think) enjoyed the book and thought I would too. I did. It revived memories of interesting, often horrible, times in our recent past. I enjoyed Jonathan Harley’s perspective and the way he’s able to show the funny side of things without causing offence, perhaps because he so liberally pokes fun at himself too. India, he says, is the richest, poorest, most charming, infuriating, beautiful and hideous land in the history of time. And it can be as efficient as it can be chaotic. It is, in fact, a poor man’s America! 
Jonathan Harley writes of Pakistan’s “blokes-only” political rallies; of the cricket obsession of India and the overwhelmingly emotional, rather comic, response to Don Bradman’s death; of the reaction to 9/11 in Kabul where he happened to be at the time. When he enters Wagah’s no-man’s land, it feels like a stroll between two patriotic theme parks. (And Dosti must be the first bus in Indian history to arrive on time.) There’s more.
Travelling with him from one news-making event to the next, I found Jonathan Harley sensitive to what he observes and experiences. His reports are accurate; his analyses shrewd; the patterns he describes creative and discerning. However, his grasp of history occasionally wavers. This naturally makes some of what he writes appear superficial.
Here are some random bits pulled out from the book which will give you an idea of his overall style and approach.
Soon after arriving in India, Jonathan Harley's first assignment is the horrible Staines murder and he sees Gladys Staines very soon after her husband and children were burnt to death by zealots: “India’s latest widow sits calmly, almost serenely, patiently fielding reporters’ questions. Perhaps she has not had time to cry or she’s waiting for some privacy. She’ll wait forever. Like most things in India, grieving is a public event.”
Covering the massacre of Nepal’s royal family, he observes, “I pass a family offering prayers and lighting incense before portraits of the King and Queen at a makeshift mourning platform. While their rituals of piety and humility verge on the poetic, I can’t help but think Nepal would be better off without its royalty. Monarchies have long struck me as a medieval abomination best left to history."
Portraying Mumbai’s dabbawallas, the dabba Jonathan Harley follows shows us more than just the six-sigma precision of this institution – it exposes the middle-aged office workers of the city who still rely on their aging mummies to cook their meals for them.
Of his foray into Taliban country – ‘No-fun-istan’ – he writes, “First came the Dark Ages. Then came Mad Max. And somewhere between, suspended in time, space and sanity, in a whirlwind of dust and devastation, came the Taliban. I’ve landed in an Islamic utopia with Cold War weaponry."
At Rajasthan’s luxurious Neemrana Fort Palace, he sees not just the “beautiful blend of richly coloured Indian art and Euro-chic simplicity” but, directly below, the crowded village with muddy paths and sickly cows. “It’s here that most of the hotel’s cleaners, porters and labourers live. The realities of India’s luxuries are never far from view.”
Daunted at first by his battalion of domestic and office staff, he’s self-critical enough to describe his situation after a few months thus: “I don’t drive, wash or iron, I don’t even make my morning coffee. And I no longer notice. I have become part of the modern Raj – hopelessly dependent, and resentful when ‘staff’ make mistakes or don’t read your mind.”
‘Pakistan’, Jonathan Harley informs us, is actually an acronym: “It stands for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir and Indus-Sind, with the suffix ‘-stan’, which means ‘land’. Unfortunately for the people of the restless south-western province of Baluchistan, ‘B’ did not make it into the mix – which may go some way to explaining the Baluchis’ keenness to secede.”
The scene that most endeared Jonathan Harley to me is set in Eden Gardens where one very white Australian face stands out prominently in a sea of Indian fans (and they’re not so much cheering as jeering). India is playing Australia and the rowdy fans are roaring as each Australian wicket falls. Far from cowering, our hero shouts, “C’MON AUSSIE!” inviting attack from the passionate fans around him, safe because apparently Indians have an amazing ability to get overcharged without exploding into violence. And Jonathan Harley declares: “As I watch, boggle-eyed at this outpouring of pride and passion, I see a nation united. For all India’s diversity and division, cricket is the country’s one common religion. Across boundaries of class, caste, religion and language, everyone can pray in the temple of cricket. It is glue, binding a country that seems to teeter on the verge of disintegration, offering a shared purpose, playfulness and identity.”
I did like this book, and intend to hang on to it, despite its wobbly bits, as a history/anthropology resource for the future. 

13 May 2013

Miss Timmins' School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy

The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?

My last blog post was in October. For the 6+ months since then, I was unable to read. After a relentless book-a-week schedule of more than five years, it was disconcerting. For stretches I forgot that there was such a thing as reading. There were also occasions when I tried to pick up a book and found myself unable to get into it. I began to reconcile myself to the possibility that black-and-white fountain was drying up.
One day, I realised that I had actually finished reading a book. It had taken me several months, much longer than a book usually takes. One reason was because it was an unusually long book replete with intricate detail. Another was because I was reading it aloud to my friend Gladys, to whom I read aloud for 2 hours every Tuesday morning, because she can no longer read herself. Both of us enjoyed it very much. Gladys, an intellectual and particularly well read – she was a career librarian – will always boast that she loves a good murder mystery. As we read, she complained that the book was going on and on a bit too much. However, we both agreed that the biggest charm of this book lies in its detail.
Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is in Panchgani and perhaps by a coincidence, or perhaps not, appears very similar to the Kimmins’ High School, a hoary girls’ boarding school in the same town. Although this book is probably not based on a true murder mystery in the real Kimmins’, it certainly paints a very lifelike picture of what things were like there in the 1970s, the period in which this book is set.
Having studied at a boarding school myself around then, I could certainly relate to various fine aspects that emerge in the narration, such as the interactions between students, and between teachers and students; the emotional environment and general value systems; the emphasis on English literature and the general snobbishness of the English speaker; as well as characteristics of life in a small town.
I found this book easy to read and enjoyed it, in particular the many different life realities of that particular time and place that it introduces the reader to. As a murder mystery, the plot is strong and convincing. I found the many meandering diversions and descriptions of the narrative not just interesting, but invaluable as a historical account of the time. However, I don’t think this approach lends itself to a pace that would satisfy someone looking for a thrilling page-turner.